From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
For June we are celebrating casting director Michelle Guish. Live near an Alamo Drafthouse? Get tickets to this month's The English Patient Afternoon Tea here!
In the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, everything that could happen does happen: no matter how big or small, every possible alternative outcome of an event branches off into an entirely new and separate parallel world.
In one, say, you miss your train and, on arriving home, fail to notice your partner behaving oddly because you’re dealing with getting fired and mugged in short order.
In another, you catch that train, try to ignore the friendly Monty Python-quoting stranger you briefly encountered when you dropped an earring in an elevator earlier because you’re dealing with getting fired, and arrive home to find that same partner in bed with someone else.
This is the premise of Peter Howitt’s 1998 Sliding Doors, the rare film which doesn’t just tackle one side of a what-if alternate world scenario but follows both paths, making use of a single flashback rewind at the crucial parting of the ways before elegantly intercutting between the timelines as Helen alternately discovers and misses her boyfriend Gerry cheating; leaves him and stays; starts her own PR company and winds up waitressing; takes her hair short and blonde, and leaves it long and brown; falls for Python fan James and meets him for the first time.
Riding a fine line of lighthearted romantic drama without getting stuck in the philosophical weeds of fate versus free will, Howitt wrote twenty drafts of Sliding Doors – each one shedding its own series of alternate worlds – before locking the story down. The duality of the narrative’s timelines are reflected in the dualities of the characters, primarily the split between the decisive Helen who caught the train and the more passive, train-missing version. Gerry’s also living two lives despite being clearly unsuited to subterfuge, but he’s more indecisive wimp than active villain, with his own emotional journey to take. James is gregarious and emotionally open, but has a story and a double life of his own that drives the withholding which comes between him and Helen, while Lydia is driven and passionate but also demanding of sympathy as she’s skewered by Gerry’s indecision, despite being The Other Woman.
Finding actors to portray the conflicting demands and emotional ranges of these characters fell to casting director Michelle Guish, who also had to factor in the need to establish believable chemistry in the various couplings between the four principal characters, even before considering who should play the best friends, secretaries, restaurant customers and partygoers in their periphery.
The permutations of movie casting are almost infinite, even beyond the rooms full of actors who don’t get a callback: there are alternate worlds in which Kurt Russell played Han Solo in Star Wars, ones in which Jennifer Aniston, Rachel Weisz and Gwyneth Paltrow endlessly call out “Jack!” as Rose in Titanic, and somewhere out there Russell Crowe is Wolverine while Hugh Jackman is James Bond.
Throughout movie history there are actors who didn’t quite have the right look, the right personality or the right skillset, who pissed off exactly the wrong person or had been pissed off by them, who just weren’t available or amenable to the material, but were otherwise perfect for a project. Pulling on their professional relationships, readings of temperament, industry knowledge and sheer gut instinct, it’s the casting director’s job to provide suitable options, see how they fit together and then filter them through all the other conflicting demands of a production, whether those of a producer, director, studio, investor or star, until finally a cast is assembled and production can begin.
And sometimes they have to start over: in another world Minnie Driver is the star of Sliding Doors, playing Helen opposite John Hannah’s James, but the funding fell through just as the movie was ready to go into production. Hannah returned to Hollywood where he was taking meetings off the back of Four Weddings And A Funeral (another Michelle Guish casting gig) including one with Sydney Pollack, who was looking for projects in which to invest. A week later an astonished Peter Howitt was dragged out of the pub in which he was drowning his sorrows to find the finance not just in place but doubled: a chance mention to the right person in the right place at the right time, and Sliding Doors was back on.
With Driver no longer available, Guish began the search for Helen once again. There’s some other world in which Gillian Anderson got the part (in this world she regrets missing out on it) but ultimately the role went to Gwyneth Paltrow, whose London accent full of glottal stops and nasal non-rhoticity is indistinguishable from that of a native speaker, essential in a movie which makes such distinctive use of different London locales to weave the city into the story without hitting over-familiar tourist spots.
The rowing scene in particular looks like a movie invention, but in reality crews are out on the Thames under Hammersmith Bridge most weeks, providing a unique spectacle as they lift their boats from the water and file into one of the riverside pubs. Originally members of the Imperial College Boat Club were cast as James’ crew-mates, but Guish realised these Olympic-grade specimens would dominate the scene and drafted in less statuesque members of Cygnet Rowing Club instead to enhance James’ stature within the boat and the subsequent celebration, making the sequence more believable in the process. It’s a great example of a casting director being just as invested in the film as its writer and director, making a small but worthwhile change which better serves the story.
The riverside scene includes the movie’s other neat in-camera contrast of the two timelines: a simple whip pan from the Helen who caught the train as she cheers on James’ crew to her counterpart walking along the bank with her best friend, discussing her suspicions of Gerry’s philandering. Aware of the difficulty level of this kind of storytelling for a first-time director, Pollack himself spent time choosing alternate realities, honing the editing between the two timelines as the story escalates into its final act and both Helens find themselves pregnant, suffer chance accidents, lose their babies and wind up in a coma.
As one Helen slips from the limbo of her coma into death, the other awakens, but, in a surprisingly dark choice that runs counter to our expectations of romantic narrative, the Helen who caught the train, who discovered Gerry’s cheating, who started her own company, who fell for James and was carrying his child, is the one who dies. The Helen who missed the train, who waited tables, who was carrying Gerry’s child, who didn’t put her suspicions together before arriving at Lydia’s for a job interview only to find Gerry at the door and Lydia also pregnant with his child: this Helen lives, kicking Gerry out of her life and her hospital room before setting out into a new world of her own. On entering the elevator she drops an earring, responding in kind to the Monty Python quote from the friendly man who returns it: as the elevator doors slide closed, Helen and James meet anew.
If everything that could happen does happen, perhaps the outcome of each decision we make is ultimately immaterial, even if we can no longer access the alternate outcomes: the path may be less direct, but in at least one of those parallel worlds everything shakes out and we still end up exactly where we should be: wiser, stronger, and with whole new stories to tell. In our world it’s Michelle Guish who finds our storytellers, her strength and wisdom shaking out the infinite possibilities of the casting conundrum to end up with exactly the casts those stories deserve. As worlds go, it’s a pretty good one.